January 7, 2016

The Good News of "Ashes to Go"

Each year, generally between the Feast of the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, Episcopal social media lights up with debates over the new practice of "Ashes to Go."  This practice, which has become quite popular over the last half decade or so, encourages local parishes, clergy and laity alike, to take ashes on Ash Wednesday out into the streets and impose those ashes on the foreheads of folks outside of the context of the liturgy.

I am not a fan. But I also am a fan.

If you want to know why I am not a fan, all you need do is Google "Ashes to Go" and you will find countless blogs pointing out the pros and cons of this practice. I will not repeat them now.  This has been debated to death and I am done.  But despite my objections, which have little to do with people going out of their churches into the streets (which is a good thing) and more about ignoring proper liturgical form, this practice has proven to be fruitful for many and even those whom I consider to be far more liturgically snobby than myself, have taken ashes into the street and proclaimed themselves to be converts to the practice.

Even though I cannot seem to get past my objections of imposing ashes outside of the context of a penitential liturgy, I have come to the point where I have accepted that this is not a trend that will end anytime soon and I do take solace in knowing that the motivations behind this practice are indeed evangelistic and good, even if I cannot in good conscience participate.  I would argue that there is much we can learn from "Ashes to Go" as we as the Church seek ways to meet God's people even as I dispute the good order of the practice itself.

Clearly, despite common held belief about an ever-growing society of "nones," people are desperate to connect with God and "Ashes to Go" has certainly given a way for people to connect with God and the church.  Each year tremendous stories about personal interactions between those longing for God and those who have gone out into the streets to help ease that longing flood social media and news articles.  I have no doubt that these experiences are true and genuine and have changed people in ways most of us will never realize.

"Ashes to Go" is indeed an evangelistic tool.  Not evangelism in the "go out and be great social workers" way, as some have redefined evangelism (not that we don't need great social workers too), but evangelism in the proper sense of introducing God through Jesus Christ to a world that does not know Him.  This is indeed a good thing.  I also can't help but notice the great energy behind "Ashes to Go" from both clergy and laity alike.  To me, this speaks to the deep desire within our church to preach the Gospel to all nations.  And this too is a good thing.

I am, however, puzzled at why with all the hype and energy behind "Ashes to Go" that we limit this experience to one Wednesday once a year. Why are we not meeting our communities every day and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Why are we not standing at the bus stop offering to pray with people every day?  Why are we not going into the world and inviting people to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit every day?  It is easy to go out once a year and feel like we have done our bit to evangelize to the world, but it is much more difficult to make it a regular practice.

You probably will never see a picture of me imposing ashes on someone's head at a train station (unless it is a part of a larger outdoor liturgy), but I do find hope for the Church in "Ashes to Go."  For me, "Ashes to Go" while perhaps flawed in its execution does indicate, that despite our reputation of being God's "frozen chosen," Episcopalians do have a deep desire to connect reconcile humanity to God through Jesus Christ.  There is an every growing movement within our Church to share the Good News, so perhaps it is time to harness the energy and enthusiasm behind "Ashes to Go" and use it to preach the Gospel on the streets and at the bus stops more than one day a year.

December 29, 2015

I Believe In Miracles

The first four words of the 1970's song by Hot Chocolate, "I Believe In Miracles" has been echoing in my head for about a week and I can't seem to shake it. Not because I like the song all that much, but because in the season of miracles, the season of Christmas, I am reminded that at the core of my faith, at the core of Christianity is a belief in miracles.  Not a belief in rational and scientific miracles that can be explained, but miracles of wonder, miracles that draws us into the arms of Christ.

Church of England priest, Giles Fraser, wrote last week an article for the Guardian that while not fully dismissing miracle of the virgin birth, insisting that belief in that miracle is not central to the Christian faith (despite it being Creedal).  Reaction was swift, some defending his position and some calling for him to give up his priestly ministry. I don't wish to comment on his article specifically, but only to say that this trend by some theologians and clergy to dismiss any and all miracles, even those miracles testified to us in scripture is troubling.

Of course, denial of miracles does not begin and end with the virgin birth. Every season we are constantly confronted with untested and unwarranted theological theories about the resurrection being just a simple memory passed on through the generations, or the incarnation being nothing more than Jesus as a man being good and kind. These theories are nothing new, they have been around since the beginning of Christianity, but what is new is the acceptance of these theories by the mainstream church. If we continue to abandon miracles, if we explain away the mystery of our faith, what is left?
Nothing but a simple philosophy.
And Christianity is no simple philosophy.

Christianity is the belief that God came amongst us in human form, showed us how to love God and our neighbor, and when the time came to suffer death upon the cross and rise again on the third day.  We believe that Christ changed water into wine, walked on water, raised the dead, and fed a multitude on just a few loaves and fishes.  Miracles are at the heart of our faith.  We do not get to change that.

"And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased." - John 6:2 KJV

Scripture tells us over and over again that people followed Jesus because of the miracles he performed.  If the modern church continues to dismiss miracles, To explain them away as some rational academic understanding rather than the Truth of God, then I wonder what we have to give God's people that is so different from anything else?  A faith without miracles is no faith at all.

If we believe in a God that created heaven and earth, certainly we can believe in a God that came amongst us as both man and God, born of a virgin, and after being executed rose again. We cannot believe in an Almighty and omnipotent God and dismiss such signs and wonders.  We either believe in a God that operates beyond our understanding, or we do not. We cannot have both.

Will everyone always believe in miracles? Absolutely not. Will there ever be an end to doubt? Absolutely not. But one of the gifts of the church is that even in doubts and uncertainty, the belief in miracles still exists. When we cannot find it within ourselves to believe, our sister and brother Christians believe for us. Our doubts, which are natural, are not excuses to dismiss the Christian story passed down through the prophets, apostles and martyrs.  Doubts are an opportunity to examine our own faith and call ourselves to a renewal of belief.

When we stop believing in miracles, we have lost our sense of wonder.  When we have lost our sense of wonder we have lost our gratitude.  When we have lost our gratitude we have lost our faith.  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is a God of wonder and miracles.  May we never lose our wonder in his works.

October 20, 2015

Can We Talk?

Despite the fact that Episcopalians like to pride themselves on being a Church that likes to debate and discuss matters of the upmost importance with civility, the truth is that we don't do it all that well.  The innovation of social media as a forum for debate in some ways has been positive, in other ways has been destructive.

Below are a few of what I like to call "conversation stoppers," phrases that are used to end debate and discussion so that one of the parties gets to claim a "win."  Let's see them die a quick death please.

What would you add??

1.  "It's a matter of justice" - no longer do we actually have theological debates without this doozy being thrown around.  Treating the Church like secular society, some would thwart all discussion of scripture, reason and tradition by pulling out this phrase and therefore convicting the opposing view as being "unjust."  Stop it!

2.  "The Bible Says" - everyone really needs to stop pulling out their favorite bible verse to defend their position because I bet you in most cases I can find one that would suggest the opposite.  Let's consider the full canon of scripture and not just pull out what works in our favor that particular day.

3.  "Can we just get back to Jesus?" - As someone who has a Christology as high as the sky, I too would love nothing more than for conversations to center around our Lord Jesus Christ, however when this beauty gets used it is most often found in debates over churchmanship - as if discussions about how we organize ourselves as church have nothing to do with Jesus.  Generally I have found that this phrase is best translated as - "can we just talk about what I think is important?"

4.  "Jesus doesn't care about..." - can we stop pretending to know what our Lord thinks about everything?  I always find it interesting when this one is used that Jesus always seems to agree with the speaker/commenter.

5.  X is the result of some "ism" - a quick way to shut down an argument is to brand a position or person as some kind of -ism. Now, the Church is full of isms and there needs to be great repentance for these tremendous sins, but not everything it stands for is based on an "ism."

6.  "That's too catholic" - stop it now

7.  Claiming your opinion as fact - the problem with this one is that no-one can dispute your opinion or feelings nor should they - but they aren't actual hard facts and really shouldn't be used as such.

8.  "I find that offensive" - Stop being offended by the positions taken by others.  The only force that controls whether you are offended is yourself.  You can choose not to be offended but allow differences in opinion to be a learning opportunity for all parties.

9.  "Why are we talking about x when y is so much more important" - just because you don't think something is important doesn't mean it isn't.  Maybe listen and figure out why the topic being discussed is close to the hearts of others.

10.  "Wrong side of history, bigot, islamaphobe, Nazi, etc." - calling people names because of their theological positions is never helpful.  Branding another human being as evil because of a disagreement is troubling...take a moment to consider what they might be able to call you.

August 11, 2015

A Name Change

When I first began to blog, I thought it would be a fun joke to name the blog "The Young Curmudgeon Priest."  A group of friends and I, in our snark, liked to refer to each other as the "young curmudgeons" and we thought it was cute.  Apparently we were the only ones.  Usually the first question someone asks me after reading what I have written is; "why did you choose that name?"  After about 10 of those conversations in the past month and after turning 36 (and therefore no longer really "young") a few weeks ago, I knew it was time for a change.

I have been thinking about changing the name of this blog for a while and with a little help from my Reverend Intended, I have settled on the name "The Means of Grace."  

The "Means of Grace" comes from one of the most under-utilized and yet most beautiful prayers in The Book of Common Prayer - The General Thanksgiving (BCP p.58).  No other prayer encapsulates our relationship to the Almighty better.  Start each day with it - it will change you.

Grace is also what our life in Jesus Christ is all about.  There is no greater means of grace than the mercy shown to us by Our Lord in his life, death, and resurrection.  Grace is what we are and what we live.  It was grace that saved a wretch like you and me.

You will now also be able to reach this blog directly through the address www.themeansofgrace.com.  Look for new posts soon!

So - thank you all for reading, for your comments, and for your friendships on this journey we are all on, by the means of grace.

July 20, 2015

Parish Ministry: It's Not Dead Yet

Some may find it surprising that until I was about four months into my time as a transitional deacon, I was convinced that I would not enjoy parish ministry. When I had entered the discernment process for the priesthood I was sure I was going to spend my vocation in diocesan administration or perhaps running a nonprofit or charity. I never ever thought that I would be a parish priest. That has changed. I have only been ordained three years. I don't pretend to have experience experience or the knowledge that my colleagues have, but I have noticed a few things. And what I have noticed, that despite some drawing conclusions to the contrary, parish life is not dead. In fact, parish life is what gives me hope for our Church and our faith.

The local parish has been an experience of the Holy. Whether it is meeting with a man who had not darkened the doors of a church since he was a teenager but knew that upon the death of his mother there was only one place he could go, or the community gathering together to care for a sick neighbor, lightening the load of care for the family so they could be together in a holy time.  Agreeing to hold a funeral for  a member of the greater community who was not a member of a church so her family and friends could grieve.  Seeing children around the altar rail reaching out for the host during the Eucharist and saying the words of distribution along with me.  This is the Holy that happens in a local parish, and we should not be so quick to etch the date of death in the gravestone of "traditional" faith communities just yet.

My newsfeed and twitter account is often full of articles and blog posts telling the church that Parish life is dead or on its way out.  I am told that the ministry of the future is all happening outside of the local faith community. While I certainly admit that for far too long our parishes have been operating as small country clubs, they are not dead and they are not in any way a hindrance to the preaching of the gospel.

Do we need to decide what to do with a broken down buildings that we can't afford to keep? Absolutely  Do we need to continue to preach and teach that worship is just as essential as going out and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the world? Absolutely.   Do we have to demolish our parishes to do so? No. In fact, we should be spending time, effort, and energy rebuilding the communities in places where they had died or are dying so that they can become beacons of Christ's light in a world that is far too dark.

I have had the honor of now serving two parishes as a priest. And they are both growing. Neither is perfect, and they are both a lot of work. But those communities have become anchors in the tumultuous lives of those who make up that community and I cannot dismiss the importance of that. To forget that these places, and that these buildings have been communities full of joy,  weeping, and celebration in Christ, is a disservice to Christ and the generations of Christians who left us these communities in days gone by.

I am not at all suggesting that some of these new and"innovative" ways of "doing" church are not important. They are certainly serving a population that a traditional parish community does not or cannot serve. But what we have failed to recognize is that to promote one way of being a faith community over another is to create the same kind of homogeny that we have been fighting against these for past few decades. Faith communities can take many forms. We can find them in bars and in libraries,  in the street and in the parks. But faith communities, good and faithful faith communities, can be found in those far too often bemoaned gothic stone buildings as well. And we should not forget that.

It is important that we do not become insular in our communities. It is important that we continue to reach out and invite people to a life in Christ through baptism. It is important to meet the needs of the community in which we find ourselves. But there is not only one way of doing that. Perhaps it would be beneficial to the entire church to end this self-fulfilling prophecy of death and begin to think in terms of resurrection and new life. It was a great pleasure to see so much energy into the idea of planting churches at General Convention this month. We must continue that energy. We must build new communities and reinvigorate old ones with the mission of making new disciples of Jesus Christ.

I love Parish ministry. It is a part of my identity as a priest. It is where I find my hope and it is where I  meet Christ every day. I feel a revival coming on in our church. It is true that the church of today will not look like the church of tomorrow, but I am not at all convinced that the church of tomorrow will not still contain these glorious communities that have been the places where God's people have been fed by Word and Sacrament for generations.  When we talk of the Church of the future may we not forget the role that these special places have had in the life and work of millions of Christians. And may we continue on in the stewardship of those communities so that others may know the same joy and peace that you and I get from them.